John Kneuer on Spectrum Policy and Network Neutrality

Doc Searls asked an interesting question to John Kneuer at SuperNova:

What were the rate terms and conditions for WiFi, and what would have happened if those channels were auctioned?

and then David Isenberg chimed in:

Wi-Fi isn’t, wasn’t auctioned. It isn’t owned by any company any carrier, yet I think that everybody in this room, most people in this room, and perhaps yourself, would agree that Wi-Fi is the most innovative section of the spectrum. So there’s no market. Why isn’t that the model instead of auctions?

This was on account of Kneuer talking up the auction of spectrum in the 700 MHz range. People in the audience cheered Doc for asking the question. What does that say about the audience?

On its face, it’s not a sensible question. The apparent belief among the SuperNova crowd is that WiFi is more or less equivalent to high-power 700 MHz, so it can be handled by the regulators the same way. What they’re missing, of course, is that unlicensed WiFi doesn’t need to be auctioned because its low power and large channel count (in the 11a range) permit multiple parties to use it without interfering with each other. And these characteristics limit propagation to 300-1000 feet for most applications.

Would anybody build a region-wide network with towers on every block? Clearly not, so WiFi is a non-starter when it comes to providing competition to wireline broadband providers. If 700 MHz were regulated like WiFi, with low power and no license to operate, it would also be a non-starter in the last mile broadband business.

Humorously, the folks who argue for unlicensed wireless also complain about the lack of competition in broadband.

If they had their way, they wouldn’t have their way.

In related news, the FTC says net neutrality is not necessary:

The Federal Trade Commission today dealt a serious blow to “Net Neutrality” proponents as it issued a report dismissive of claims that the government needs to get involved in preserving the fairness of networks in the United States.

The half-life of political Kool-Aid is apparently about twelve months.

3 thoughts on “John Kneuer on Spectrum Policy and Network Neutrality”

  1. The apparent belief among the SuperNova crowd is that WiFi is more or less equivalent to high-power 700 MHz, so it can be handled by the regulators the same way.

    The true oddity of this is that the spectrum licensing system has always been divided between high power (e.g., TV and radio broadcast) and low power (e.g., CB and ham radios) applications. This was (and is) done for very practical reasons.

    Furthermore, it would seem that Isenbergs comments would make sense only if there was a strong preference among customers for the wi-fi model. Personally, I have not seen a move away from cell phones to Wi-Fi phones. Furthermore, wireless broadbroad services have been growing rapidly. In other words, while WI-FI might be innovative, it certainly does not supply everything that customers need.

  2. First, my questions to Kneuer were meant to help illuminate the differences between both auctioned and open spectrum, and between the bands involved. I was careful to be direct and respectful, in hope that we might not continue talking past each other. In that respect, I failed.

    Second, I was not making a case for opening 700MHz sepctrum (though I may have given that impression), but rather hoping to draw out Kevin Werbach, the moderator and conference host, on the subject of open spectrum in general, about which he has been an advocate in the past.

    Third, if there was a belief in the crowd that relatively high-power 700MHz spectrum is technically equivalent to the much higher frequencies employed by wi-fi and other short-range low power technologies, it was not widespread.

    Fourth, I would not interpret the applause (say, for my question) and occasional interruptive shout from the audience as representing the entire “crowd.” The audience was not single-minded about this or any other subject.

    There is no doubt, however, that there are crowds involved, and that they are talking past each other. Which is too bad.

    I said more about noncommuunication in an email that Gordon Cook published here. I’ve thought more about it since then, and will be writing something up, hopefully soon, looking for *some* common ground here.

  3. I’m not questioning your good intentions, Doc, and I did appreciate your question. Kneuer should have been able to explain the differences between 700MHz and WiFi to the audience, and that would have gone a long way toward relieving some the anxiety about this auction. But not all the way, as there is still this belief circulating the web that we’re so far along with cognitive radios that we don’t need licenses any more. Of course we aren’t, so the only practical way to deploy this tiny little chunk of bandwidth – equivalent to one and a half WiFi channels – is under licensing terms.

    There’s really no practical alternative. To me, the most important feature of this auction is that it offers a last-mile alternative to cable and DSL, and for that reason the incumbent telcos and cablecos should not be allowed to bid. With that caveat, it should go forward.

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